Question Your World: How Can Patients Get an Earlier Diagnosis of Alzhimer’s?

Posted: June 6, 2022

More than 150,000 people in Virginia are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that impacts memory and cognitive functions. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are many medical treatments, therapies and support programs. And like many other medical conditions, the sooner one can identify it, the quicker one can seek out various medical treatments to preserve quality of life as much as possible. So, how can patients get an earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer's?

Identifying Alzheimer’s has been a tricky process because those very expensive positron emission tomography (PET) scanners are only used once symptoms are already apparent in a patient, meaning the diagnosis could happen well after degeneration has begun. Recently scientists announced a new process that shows some hope for an easier, cheaper, and more importantly, an earlier diagnosis for patients facing Alzheimer’s. That process involves spinal fluid.

Your brain attaches to your spine, which runs all the way down your body. Like all other parts of our body, the brain discards wastes. Outbound fluids from the brain drain down the spinal column, and then are eventually flushed out by our lymphatic system. The new process that medical experts are excited about essentially tests that cerebral spinal fluid before it leaves the body. 

Image credit: Getty Images

That fluid that was once in and surrounding the brain is a great way to test for everything that’s up there! Alzheimer’s patients have been known to develop beta-amyloid plaque around their brain. That gritty, cruddy stuff develops around neurons and gunks up various processes like thinking and memory recollection. These plaques will occasionally have bits fall off and join the rest of the cerebral spinal fluid as it makes its way down the spine and eventually out the body. 

This new process extracts that fluid from the spine and tests to see levels of beta-amyloid plaque. If it exists in a higher number than normal, then that is an indicator perhaps that patient needs to seek medical attention as an early diagnosis allows for the most early medical intervention. 

Spinal fluid is accessed by a lumbar puncture or “spinal tap,” which is a very common process and doctors around the world already practice this procedure daily. This approach is also far more affordable and accessible than those huge scanners. Thanks to this new process, doctors now have another tool in the medical tool kit to address one of the most debilitating medical conditions on Earth. 

A friendly reminder: early knowledge can lead to early action!